Dear Aunt Debbie,
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about trying to read Pippi Longstocking to Eleanor, and discovering that she wasn't quite ready for it yet. I attributed this partly to Eleanor not having had school experience, as a certain amount of Pippi's humor comes from resisting and rejecting the structures adults have planned for her.
We picked it up again a few weeks ago, and suddenly it was the only thing Eleanor wanted to read. She's still on the young side for some of the humor (she's 4 1/2, and Pippi and Tommy and Annika are, I think, about ten), but the spirit of independence and the hilarity of Pippi's behavior have totally captivated Eleanor. So now I find myself thinking about Pippi in other ways.
Pippi Longstocking is a fascinating character. Like so many other heroines we've discussed here, she's an orphan: her mother died early, and her father, a sea captain, was swept overboard. She lives in a little house her father left her, with only a horse and her monkey, Mr. Nilsson, for company, but she never seems lonely or upset. In this sense, she's more the Ottoline kind of lone child heroine than the Sara Crewe kind. Pippi misbehaves like crazy in this book: she refuses to follow kids' rules, and won't let the townspeople take her to a children's home; on the one day she tries going to school, she speaks out of turn and is rude to the teacher, then draws all over the floor; at the circus and at Tommy and Annika's mother's tea party, she's insanely disruptive and gets all the attention in the room by making up wild stories about her grandmother's disobedient, ankle-biting maid.
And then there's the bit that I'd forgotten: Pippi is the strongest girl in the world, and utterly fearless. She can lift her horse down from the porch without breaking a sweat. Over the course of several chapters, she picks up policemen, robbers, bullies, and a circus strongman; rides a bull and breaks off his horns to keep him from goring Tommy; and rescues two little boys from a raging fire.
Astrid Lindgren writes Pippi as a sort of naif. When she's bad, she's unaware of why she's causing such disturbances; when she's heroic, though she's self-congratulatory, you feel like she still doesn't quite understand why what she's done is particularly special. She's a little otherworldly. The only times Pippi gets upset are when she realizes she's upset other people -- on some level, she knows that she can't quite behave properly, and feels a little bad about it, though not bad enough to change. Pippi is perfectly herself.
All this makes Pippi an interesting role model. Jeff commented on how he didn't particularly like the bad behavior is funny aspect of some of the stories, and on one level I agree, but man, I love having an inexplicably strong female character in our pantheon. Good manners are great to reinforce, but sometimes a girl just needs to lift her horse down from the porch and go for a crazy ride.